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Was John Gill a Hypercalvinist? (Part II)

July 17, 2009

[Continuing from Part 1]

In this post, my aim is to document some recent historical claims made regarding John Gill’s hypercalvinism. I will first cite Tom Nettle’s original attempted defense of Gill, and then post a critical rebuttal by Robert Oliver. After this I will post a small comment from Nettles from another work. A brief conclusion follows.

Nettles:

Duty-Faith and Duty-Repentance

John Gill affirmed that it was the duty of all men to repent of sin and the duty of all who heard the gospel to believe it. Some of his statements, if isolated, appear to reject duty-faith. For example, in his Cause of God and Truth he states:

God does not require all men to believe in Christ and where he does it is according to the revelation he makes of him. He does not require the heathen, who are without an external revelation of Christ, to believe in him at all; and those who only have the outward ministry of the word, unattended with the special illuminations of Spirit of God, are obliged to believe no further than that external revelation they enjoy, reachess.

Careful attention to context indicates that Gill’s purpose is to highlight man’s responsibility for that which is available to him. None is condemned specifically for not believing in Christ who never heard of Christ. Rather, men are condemned justly for their sins. If one has never heard the gospel, he stands condemned-but not for rejection of Christ. Nor does any die eternally for not believing that Christ died for him, “but the for the transgressions of the law of God.” In another place Gill spates that “such who have no revelation of him, as the heathens, are not bound to believe in him in any sense.” He goes on to affirm, however, that these who have not enjoyed a revelation of Christ are not condemned for final unbelief but will be condemned “for their sins against the law in the light of nature.”

Indeed, some might ask, is it the duty of all men to love the Lord? Absolutely! Because they are the creatures of His making, enjoy the care of His providence, and are supplied by Him with the blessings of life; therefore all men must joyfully love the Lord. But even beyond creation and providence, Gill affirms that those who hear the gospel “are obliged to love the Lord on account of redemption by Christ; since all who see their need of it, and are desirous of interest in it, have no reason to conclude otherwise, than that Christ died for them, and has redeemed them by his Gill even affirms that it is the duty of all men who hear the Word to obey it, notwithstanding their moral inability to do so.

It is man’s duty to believe the word of the Lord, and obey his will, though he has not a power, yea, even though God has decreed to withhold that grace without which he cannot believe and obey. So it was Pharaoh’s duty to believe and obey the Lord, and let Israel go; though God had determined to harden his heart, that he should not let them go. However there are many things which may be believed and done by reprobates, and therefore they may be justly required to believe and obey; it is true, they are not able to believe in Christ to the saving of their souls, or to perform spiritual and evangelical obedience, but then it will be difficult to prove that God requires these things of them, and should that appear, yet the impossibility of doing them, arises from the corruption of their hearts, being destitute of the grace of God, and not from the decree of reprobation, which though it denies them that grace and strength, without which they cannot believe and obey in this sense, yet it takes none from them, and therefore does them no injustice.

In this passage Gill carefully distinguishes between what is actually required in the reprobate and what is not. He is condemned for no more than that which is required of him; but even if it could be shown that God requires the reprobate to believe savingly, Gill would happily agree.

Furthermore, Gill argues that the reprobate’s unbelief arises only from the corruption of his own nature. Man’s inability does not exempt him from any duty, though the grace of God alone can cure man of his impenitence and unbelief. The lack of grace causes neither. Unbelief arises from “the vitiosity and corruption of their hearts.'” When we see that God is pleased to withhold His grace from some men, He does not condemn them for a lack of grace, but He condemns them for their impenitence and unbelief. Even though they cannot repent and believe without efficacious grace, God is under no obligation to bestow it. To conclude otherwise would lead to an absurdity, i.e., because man is so corrupt he cannot be subject to the law without the aid of omnipotent power, it can be no sin in him to remain unsubjected to it.

Again, Gill is careful to distinguish between what can be performed by man in his impotent state and what must be the work of God. He does not think that men are responsible for regenerating themselves or for giving themselves evangelical repentance and evangelical faith. He does believe, however, that they are responsible for believing and doing all within their natural power to believe, obey, and accept the revelation God has given of himself. And again, that condemnation lies not in their inability to regenerate themselves or to give themselves evangelical faith and repentance, but in their refusal to do even what they can.

Gill even shows himself willing to affirm that “men are required to believe in Christ, to love the Lord with all their heart, to make themselves a new heart and a new spirit.”‘But it does not follow that men may do these things of themselves, and the exhortation to such only shows their desperate need of them and that they ought to apply to God for them.

Several phrases and concepts in the quotes above make Gill’s exposition of the duties of the unregenerate quite complex. Rose who have only the “outward ministry of the word,”unaccompanied by the special work of the Spirit, are “obliged to believe no further than the external revelation they enjoy, reaches.” Also, Gill says it will be difficult to prove that God requires “spiritual and evangelical obedience.” If these statements stood by themselves, untempered by any other considerations, they would put Gill undeniably in the hyper-Calvinist camp on this issue, and here hangs the whole framework of hypercalvinism. Gill, however, is ready to allow that the unsaved have the duty to believe savingly and that ministers must exhort them to this (about which more will be said). He even affirms that man must make himself a new heart and a new spirit. Nevertheless, one -is-nor-condemned because he is unconverted but because he has sinned against God’s law. He also believes that refusal to believe savingly aggravates guilt, a belief possible only on a platform of duty-faith.

Help in this dilemma comes from plunging to the foundations of the position. Wayman, Hussey and Brine, all without equivocation rejected duty-faith. Their basis for doing so extends back to the spiritual powers of Adam in the unfallen state and the relation of those powers to the 1aw.This will be treated in a later chapter. For now, a brief observation must suffice simply as a backdrop for Gill’s understanding of man’s duties and the law of God. Adam had no need to exercise saving faith and was invested with no capacity for it. None of his posterity has greater powers than Adam in the unfallen state; therefore, no powers for saving faith are or ever were a part of man’s powers and never were nor now are part of his duty. He cannot be told he must repent and believe, and condemnation is not aggravated by impenitence and unbelief. A radical disjunction exists between the duty to love God and the duty to exhibit saving faith. Gill does not attempt to make distinctions between pre-fall duties, and he holds that the duties required by the law are fulfilled by the gospel. All that the law required of man in his unfallen state is accomplished and fulfilled by Christ; fallen man may only participate in that fulfillment by coming to Christ in saving faith. His inability to achieve such faith does not argue for excluding him from the duty of it.

In The Law Established by the Gospel Gill argues strongly that the moral law “was written in Adam’s heart in innocence.”” This law “points out to us our duty, both to God and man . . . it directs us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength: and our neighbor as ourselves.” None of these requirements has been diminished to the least extent.

Faith, both as a doctrine and as a grace, magnifies and establishes the law in its proper place. It is abolished in several ways-its perpetuity is maintained, its spirituality is asserted and secured, its perfect righteousness is established, obedience to it is set on the best of motives and under the best of influences, and it is put in the hands of Christ as the surest foundation. In addition, the law still functions: it informs us of the mind will of God, convinces us of sin, serves as a mirror that we might see our continued sinfulness, makes the righteousness of Christ more dear and valuable, and serves as a rule of life. The gospel is not simply a new law or an addendum to it to show how one may circumvent the law’s demands. ‘The gospel comes as good news to lawbreakers, showing that all of the law’s demands are fully met i n one person. ‘Those who are saved do not receive their salvation in spite of the law, or in contradiction to it, but in accordance with it:

The perfect righteousness of the law is established by faith, and the doctrine of it. Whatever the law requires, according to this doctrine, is given in it. Does it require pure and spotless holiness of nature? There is in Christ an entire conformity to it in this respect; who is harmless, and undefiled; and as such, is an high priest that becomes us, is suitable to us, as being our sanctification and our righteousness. Does the law require sinless and perfect obedience to all its commands? Christ has always done the things that pleased his Father, and has done all the things that are pleasing to him; he has perfectly obeyed the whole perceptive part of the law. Does the law require of, and threaten transgressors with the penalty of death? Christ being made sin, was made a curse for his people, and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross. So that the law, in all respects, is magnified, and made honorable by him, according to the doctrine of faith. We bring to the law in Christ our head, or rather he in our room and stead, a righteousness which answers all the demands of it, and casts a luster and glory upon it: and, indeed, all the obedience of angels and men put together, does not, and cannot give the law such glory and honour as the obedience and righteousness of Christ does. Whence ’tis clear, that the law is so far from being made void, that it is thoroughly established by it.

For Gill, therefore, faith is not disjoined from man’s obligations to the law. Faith fulfills these obligations. Gill’s conviction kept him from rejecting duty-faith and duty-repentance and inspired in him a commitment to the necessity of evangelism.

Tom J. Nettles, By His Grace and for His Glory, 2d ed. (Cape Coral Florida: Founders Press), 2006), 42-46. [Underlining mine; and footnotes from Nettles not included.]

Oliver:

Perhaps Dr Nettles’ most surprising conclusion is that John Gill was not a Hyper-Calvinist. He concedes that Gill did not accept the free offer of the Gospel, but insists that he did teach that men have a duty to repent and to to believe in Jesus Christ (p 94ff). He quotes Gill as saying that ‘men are to believe in Christ, to love the Lord with all their heart, to make themselves a new heart and a new spirit (p 97). Gill made this statement in the context of a discussion of Acts 3.19, which he insisted was a demand for legal as opposed to evangelical repentance. Unlike evangelical repentance, legal repentance was an external change not associated with salvation. Gill went on to make the very guarded concession, ‘If, therefore, evangelical and internal conversion were here intended, it would only prove that the persons spoken to were without them, stood in need of them, and ought to apply to God for them’ (J. Gill, The Cause of God and Truth, London, 1838, p 64). Professor Nettles also states the ‘Gill affirms that those who hear the gospel “are obliged to love the Lord on account of redemption by Christ; since all who see their need of it, and are desirous of an interest in it, have no reason to conclude otherwise, than that Christ died for them, and has redeemed them by his blood“‘, (p 95). Gill does not, in fact, make this statement of ‘those who hear the gospel‘, but of ‘all to whom the gospel revelation comes‘ (Cause of God and Truth, p 315 [170]). Of unbelievers he has just declared that, ‘such cannot be obliged to love the Lord for that revelation, which was never intended for them, nor for that grace which will not be vouchsafed to them‘ (Ibid, p 314[170]).1 In Gill’s thinking, those ‘to whom the gospel revelation comes are those who ‘have no reason to conclude otherwise than that Christ died for them, and has redeemed them by his blood’ (Ibid, p315), in a word, Christians. The coming of the gospel revelation has to be seen as a part of God’s saving activity. Gill’s arguments on human responsibility often hinge on the distinction between natural and spiritual responsibilities. He made his position clear when he wrote, ‘As for those texts of Scripture, I know of none, that exhort and command all men, all the individuals of human nature, to repent and believe in Christ for salvation; they can only, at most, concern such persons who are under gospel dispensation; and in general, only regard an external repentance, and an historical faith in, or assent to, Jesus as the Messiah‘ (Ibid, p 308).Gill has undoubtedly had a bad press and it is good that he should be considered sympathetically. As Dr Nettles shows, he did believe in evangelism, as, in fact, many other Hyper-Calvinists have done. He stood firm against Christological heresy and against Arminianism at a time when both were gaining ground in England. A great and godly man, he was not the ogre that some have suggested. Dr Nettles’ tentative conclusion deserves consideration: ‘Perhaps, rather than imputing blame upon Gill for the leanness of the times, he should be credited with preserving gospel purity, which eventuated in the efforts to use means for the conversion of the heathen’ (p 107). Nevertheless when Gill’s writings are considered, the weight of the evidence supports the traditional view that he was a Hyper-Calvinist.

Robert Oliver, “A Review article on ‘By His Grace and For his Glory,'” in The Banner of Truth, 284 (May 1987) 30-32.  [Square brackets inserted mine, referring to the page numbers in the Baker and Baptist Standard Bearer editions;  footnote mine;  and underlining mine.]

Nettles:

Faith in God and his Word [Sermons and Tracts (1773), I, 82; the italics in the final clause added]. This teaching of the absence of current ability, and thus responsibility, on the basis of its original absence is, in my view, the most pivotal theological idea of the Hyper-Calvinist doctrine. Gill, however, was willing to forego this interpretation at times. In his Cause of God and Truth, Part 111, Chapter 1, Gill refutes the aphorism nemo obligatur ad impossibile by showing that often people are justly required to do that which is impossible in their current condition It may be difficult to show, however (according to Gill), that God requires “spiritual and evangelical obedienceof the unregenerate, an assertion in harmony with that quoted above. “Should that appear,” that is, should it be demonstrated that God does indeed require evangelical obedience [repentance and faith], “Yet the impossibility of doing them, arises from the corruption of their hearts, being destitute of the grace of God” (ibid., 158). For some of the complexities of this issue, see Tom J. Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 94-107. Although I think the judgment should still be surrounded with cautions and caveats, there may be compelling evidence that Gill held to the distinctive Hyper-Calvinist tenet. Tom J. Nettles, “John Gill and the Evangelical Awakening,” in The Life and Thought of John Gill (Leiden: Brill, 1997), fnt 153, p., 153.  [Underlining mine.]

Conclusion:

It is clear that Nettle’s earlier claims regarding Gill are clearly incorrect. For Gill, only those who have an interest in Christ have a corresponding obligation to believe in him savingly. Those who do not, however, are only required to externally or nationally or legally repent.

Oliver’s criticisms of Nettle’s original analysis are quite devastating, as it is shown that Nettle’s is actually taking Gill out of content.

And then we are left with Nettle’s own step back from his earlier claims. However, Nettles needs to press on, for it is not the case that there “may” be compelling evidence that Gill denied duty-faith, but clear and solid evidence that he indeed did deny it.

David

_____________________
1See entry 6, under “Gill Denies Duty-Faith” here.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2009 6:30 pm

    What’s so bad about John Gill being a Hyper-Calvinist? I think that’s a good thing.

  2. April 6, 2010 9:41 pm

    Gill is one of favourite theologians and I have read many of his works, he was not a Hyper. He did not believe God is the author of sin or that man was without responsibility before God for his sin.

    If you want to see real Hyper Calvinism look to Joseph Hussey and John Skepp but not John Gill.

  3. Flynn permalink*
    April 15, 2010 1:44 pm

    Hey JM, where are Hussey and Skepp different from Gill? What is it that made them hypercalvinists which Gill denied? Can you show me?

    Thanks,
    David

Trackbacks

  1. Was John Gill a Hypercalvinist? (Part I) « Theology Online
  2. John Gill’s Hypercalvinism Revisited: A Response to Turretinfan « Theology Online

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